Christopher Durang, Michael Feinstein & Dame Edna
I felt very humble about writing dialogue for Dame Edna.
About the author:
When we heard that the great Christopher Durang, author of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, The Marriage of Bette and Boo, Betty’s Summer Vacation, Why Torture Is Wrong and other comedies, had signed on to help write the Dame Edna/Michael Feinstein show All About Me, we thought...of course! Back in the day, he slayed ’em as frontman in the sly cabaret show “Chris Durang and Dawne.” As it turned out, a long run for All About Me wasn’t in the cards (it closes on April 4), but we were curious about how a playwright tackles the task of crafting an evening for two performers with hugely different personas and fans. The always cordial Durang kindly shared the show’s fascinating development process in an essay for Broadway.com.
I got a call out of the blue from producer Jeffrey Richards, asking me if I’d like to work on a show starring Dame Edna Everage and Michael Feinstein. I was a fan of both performers, and thought, “Wow, what a fascinating offer.” I knew it wouldn’t be like writing a play; it would be more like some of the cabaret work I’ve done, like “Chris Durang and Dawne.”
First I spoke with Michael, who filled me in on the concept of the show— that he and Dame Edna had been double-booked into the same theater by mistake.
Barry Humphries, of course, plays Dame Edna. Edna is such a distinctive character, after a while one refers to Dame Edna as if she is a real person and has a mind of her own. Which I rather think she does.
Barry lives in England and Australia, but in November he came to New York City so he, Michael and I could meet for a series of intensive work sessions. For two weeks, we met Monday through Friday, from 10 to 5 each day.
As the two weeks went on, our lunch hours seemed to extend. I learned that Michael was a vegan, and seemed incredibly healthy, without an ounce of fat anywhere. Barry and I had similar somewhat unhealthy eating habits, and would often consider and even decide on cheesecake as a good way to end a lunch.
I share the writing credit of All About Me with Barry and Michael. The underlying idea of the show, which predated me, was conceived by Barry and Michael and their respective spouses, Lizzie Spender and Terrence Flannery.
The experience was extremely collaborative. When I met Barry, one of the first things I said to him was that I felt very humble about writing dialogue for Dame Edna. That any line I wrote he should look at as a suggestion, and take it if he wants, or change if he wants, or reject it. It’s so clear that everything about Edna comes from deep within Barry’s prolific and hilarious sensibility. I did, however, tell Michael I would compensate for this deference to Barry by bossing Michael around on everything regarding music and song choice and singing and piano playing.
In between the cheesecake eating and Michael’s eating tofu, we did chart out a fairly fleshed out outline for Act One: how they meet on stage. Edna’s “security detail,” Bruno and Benito, who drag Michael off-stage. What happens when Michael returns and confronts Edna. And we knew that somewhere around the middle, they needed to start to get on. Prolonged arguing between them could be un-fun.
I had an idea for Act Two that Barry and Michael initially liked—during the intermission, Barry and Michael have tea, agree to stop resisting each other’s presence, and in the remaining six minutes, throw together a version of a musical they might do together. (Obviously, concocting an entire Act Two in “the remaining six minutes” of intermission was meant to be funny.)
My impulse was to set the musical-within-the-musical in a piano bar. In my younger years, there was a period I hung out with a friend at piano bars in the Village and one (Brandy’s) in the East 80s where I lived nearby in a sublet. I found it a pleasing, jolly and sometimes poignant setting—the waiters and waitresses were usually aspiring singers and actors, many were very talented, they loved musical theater, they were young and looking for partners or looking for fun, there was lots of drinking… I should probably write a play about it. Or maybe this paragraph is sufficient for the topic.
I thought Michael could play the piano player, and Dame Edna could be the popular waitress Daisy. When I brought in pages though, I did discover that Edna is such a strong character we don’t want to lose her inside some other character. So then I shifted to the idea that Edna could just not stay in character, and would keep reverting to her Edna self, including maybe singing “Friends of Kenny,” a good song for the gay-friendly piano bar setting.
Then, while I was writing this all up—from notes, from transcripts of our meetings, from fever dreams I was having due to a bad cold—the dreaded holidays happened. Barry was in Australia, Michael was often on tour, and director Casey Nicholaw, who had just joined the project, suddenly went to Alaska. Thanksgiving is a short holiday, but Christmas seems to take 20 to 30 weeks, and I kind of couldn’t reach anybody.
Anyway, I found writing Act Two took way longer than I thought. And then Barry and Michael seemed worried by it. It’s true: It was a big switch to go to a “show-within-a-show.” I thought it was fun and interesting, but I also admitted it might be a bit…“cumbersome.” And it’s hard to speak up for something you yourself have named as “cumbersome.’’ (I could have tried … “Well, you know, the GOOD sense of cumbersome, like a…. hearty soup! Or a REALLY warm winter coat.”)
Then Barry and Michael and Casey all got back to New York. And I put on a warm winter coat and had a hearty soup to help my cold go away, and I joined them in a room to discuss What to Do with Act Two. (That’s a good song title…) Lizzie and Terrence were there too.
I was fairly nervous, but the discussions went well. Being face to face with Barry and Michael was so helpful after about six weeks apart. And Casey was full of wonderful ideas. We chose to throw out the Piano Bar entirely. We made the stage manager character more important; she became the catalyst who forces them to work together. We got rid of the intermission, we threw out a lot of arguing about contracts that I had written (I thought it was funny, but the audience didn’t care about explaining the premise, I discovered). And we got to their willingness to work together much faster, and more simply.
Barry and Michael are longtime friends, and so when their “getting along” culminates in a pleasing and sometimes crackpot medley, I find their rapport and playfulness to be genuine and charming. So I started as a fan of them both, and I remain one.